10.11.2011

Sthira Sukham Asanam

As I pulled out of the studio parking lot this afternoon to head home after training, it occurred to me how incredibly lucky I am.  Today was just the fourth day of these three weeks with Swenson and, already, my understanding of Ashtanga has evolved so much.

We (the students) are teaching more and more of the practice each day.  David is handing us bits of Primary from either end, beginning with standing and finishing, then moving toward the middle.  Tomorrow morning, we will lead a partner through an entire half-Primary practice (to Navasana).  I had wondered, heading into this experience, how well a regular practice of Ashtanga would translate to teaching ability, particularly since teaching Vinyasa turned out to be so much harder than I could have anticipated despite any number of countless hours I had spent on the mat myself.  Fortunately, I am finding that teaching Ashtanga comes relatively easily.  The rhythm of the practice is deeply etched into my brain, and the direct, minimalist method suits me better than the nearly constant verbal instruction of Vinyasa flow.

We spend a lot of time in the studio doing partner work, one person assumes the role of teacher and the other is the student, then we switch.  It has been interesting to observe another closely in his or her practice, and not merely to observe but to be a participant, a facilitating force.  The variety of adjustments we are learning, many of which I have never received, have done a great deal to demystify the Mysore teacher's role in my mind.  As a bonus, I was able to use a few of the adjustments in class on Monday night with satisfying results for my students.  I can feel the workman's belt of teaching tools growing weightier around my hips.

I am also learning lots of ways to tidy up my own practice (figured out the lotus jump back!) and, more importantly, to make it more sustainable.  If there is one thing that David seems to emphasize again and again, it is the importance of the sustainability of one's personal practice over advancement through the series.  So how does one make the practice more sustainable?  By holding back.  If you are able to haul your body through every jump back and jump through of Primary but it takes every last bit of energy you've got, then don't do it.  One of my favorite teachers once said this to me about my practice and I try to think of it every day:  "Don't give it all away.  Keep a little something for yourself."  Sounds like something my mother would say.

I sometimes wonder, when I wake to a sore and tired body or feel an aversion to my mat, "How long can I keep this up?  Ashtanga is hard!"  But the truth of it is that Ashtanga is not hard.  My practice is hard.  The way that I practice is hard.  Ashtanga is merely a set series of postures, how one moves through the postures is entirely up to the practitioner.  But holding back is not easy.  It is much simpler for me to stay in the meditation if my thoughts are obliterated by sensation than if the sensation is mild and the body is soft.  So, as I have grown stronger and more open, rather than enjoying the fruits of my labor in comfortable, sustainable postures, I have developed a habit of going further in search of that sensation until the softness of the posture is lost.

 I say this with no sense of pride:  I have never not once skipped a vinyasa in my personal practice with ONE exception.  For a while there I omitted the one between Paschimottanasana and Purvottanasana to save time.  But that's it... except, of course, for rare occasions when I don't have enough time for a full practice.  In that case, I do a bare-bones Primary which involves a variety of creative shortcuts.  And I've "forgotten" that last one before Savasana more times than I care to admit.

Okay... so maybe I have skipped a vinyasa or two in my time. The point is that I don't do it often.  Yesterday, my training partner, a local Vinyasa instructor, remarked as he led me through a practice, "You're one of those Ashtangis I've heard about."  I laughed and confirmed that, indeed, I am one of those Ashtangis.  I always give the practice everything I've got, and even though I stay with the breath, I am overworking the body.  It's time to scale back the effort and bring a little more ease to this balance.

5 comments:

  1. Ha, ha. I got labeled as an Ashtangi before I even realized that I was one, lol. Once I started in the Mysore room, the label got moved up to "hardcore Ashtangi" literally within weeks of starting my practice. Nevermind that it takes me forever to get through my practice because I move fairly slowly and deliberately, lol (I still hold to the breath count...they're just really long breaths, lol). I remember asking one of the teachers in my teacher training about where you were supposed to be focusing your breathing in a certain pose and she said, "leave it to an Ashtangi to ask about the breath." I don't mind the label, I consider myself to be in pretty good company ;-)

    I totally resonate with what you say about the "practice" being different than the Ashtanga: how the sequence of poses feels varies greatly depending on how you practice it--sometimes it can feel so incredibly restorative and other times it can be totally energizing!

    Great post Megan :)

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  2. Ha! Sounds like we would practice well together, Tara. My Primary runs upward of 2 hours because my breath is so long and my asana is very detailed. After working with my first Ashtanga instructor for a few weeks, she said to me, "You have found your practice."

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  3. Hey,

    I've thought about this post during my practice this morning while performing the primary serie with the practice manual from David Swenson, that's why I let a late comment

    In the book, David inserts a vinyasa between Kurmasana and Supta Kurmasana, and also between Garbha Pindasana and Kukkutasana. It seems very un-natural for me because in each case you almost have to re-do the previous posture to enter the next (slip again the arms into padmasana for Kukkutasana...).
    I wanted to ask what is the nowadays position of David on this vinyasa, but also your position on this point (your point of view is important because you don't skip vinyasas).

    Finally, as a general advice, if you want/need to skip some vinyasas (because of tiredness, time...), which one would you skip? (I've read the one between Paschimotanasana and Purvottanasana)

    I tend to skip the vinyasas between each side of the asymetric postures: do you think it's good?
    [I know that there may not be any general rule, but it seems logical for me, if I wish to skip some vinyasas, to skip these ones specially instead of inter-asana vinyasas]

    Thanks again for your blog, which gives good incentives on the ashtanga practice.

    Louis

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  4. Hi Louis,

    Thanks for the questions. I'm curious which edition of David's book you have. Mine from the sixth printing in 2002 does not include vinysasas between Kurmasana and Supta Kurmasana or between Garbha Pindasana and Kukkutasana. To my knowledge, there never has been a vinyasa between Kurmasana and Supta K, but there WAS at some point a vinyasa between Garbha P and Kukkutasana that is no longer a part of the practice. David's position now certainly omits any remnant of vinyasa between Garbha P and Kukkutasana, with Kukkutasana practiced as an extension of the rolling in Garbha P.

    As for skipping vinysasas, you are right to skip the ones between sides of the same posture and not between postures. I would suggest that you "mark" the vinyasas you skip with a lift-up to reset the bandhas. While this is not formally accepted, when I'm in a really big hurry, I sometimes skip the ones between Paschimottanasana and Purvottanasana as well as the one between Paschimottanasana and Sarvangasana. But I would NOT do this in a Mysore room, only in home practice and only if absolutely necessary.

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  5. ok, it's my mistake: indeed no vinyasa is indicated in this case, in fact, as during this practice, I was refering to the book (instead of a cheat sheet), I had to turn the pages and so on, but for these asana, I was in trouble, so had problems to read ;)

    anyway, thanks for your useful answer for skipping the vinyasas

    I think I'm not one of those ashtangi that do each and every vinyasa, because even if I have time or strength, I don't mind (or I even prefer) skipping the vinyasas between sides ;)

    Thanks again
    Louis

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